As Gov. Doug Ducey signed Arizona’s universal school voucher expansion into law Thursday, public education advocates geared up for a petition drive to block the effort, promising once again to use a public referendum to halt universal access to the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
The program is now the largest school voucher program in the country. It changes the very nature of how families in Arizona can spend public education dollars by opening up the option for all students to spend a portion of tax funding initially allocated to public education at private schools.
Ducey, who will complete his term as governor in January, celebrated the law.
“This is a monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students. Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools,” he said in a statement Thursday. “With this legislation, Arizona cements itself as the top state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them.”
Public education advocates called it a disaster for Arizona schools.
“Arizona voters will be eager to reject HB 2853 (Universal ESA Voucher Expansion) once and for all on the November 2024 ballot, sending a clear message to national privatizers that Arizona voters overwhelmingly support public schools and want our lawmakers to prioritize them,” said Beth Lewis, Save Our Schools Arizona director.
She said the group would start printing petitions the moment the bill went into law and distribute them among volunteers across the state already doing voter outreach work.
“Arizona voters are fed up with majority lawmakers who are prioritizing their wealthy donors and greedy special interests over the Arizona students, parents, and citizens they are supposed to represent.”
The tug of war between laws passed by Arizona’s school choice-minded state leaders and public education groups like Save Our Schools Arizona is far from new, but there is no promised outcome.
If Save Our Schools Arizona and its supporters can secure 118,823 valid signatures before September 24, the voucher expansion will be placed on hold until November 2024, when voters get a chance to weigh in.
A similar voucher expansion was successfully stopped through a public referendum in 2018.
But the most recent voucher expansion, as well as court rulings like the one that killed Proposition 208, the voter-approved tax increase for education, show how those efforts can be curtailed. The Legislature could also repeal the voucher law next year and replace it with a similar bill, thus nullifying the referendum effort.
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Under the expansion, all students who reside in the state and could enroll in a public school are eligible to get public funding to pay for private school tuition, online curriculums or tutors.
Unlike earlier iterations of the program, it is no longer required that students previously enrolled in a public school.
The bill’s passage turned on the votes of three Republicans in the state House of Representatives who previously had rejected expanding Arizona’s limited voucher program because it lacked accountability for the use of public dollars.
Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, who had opposed voucher expansion in previous legislative sessions, signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, acknowledged that the bill lacked accountability, such as public information on student academic performance and how the dollars are spent. But, she said, voucher expansion will be accompanied by the addition of $1 billion in the public K-12 system, a trade-off that she said was worth a shift in her position.
Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, joined Udall in providing the critical votes to pass the bill.
Arizona supplants West Virginia as the state that has introduced the most far-reaching school voucher program. West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship, recently blocked in court, was available to all students who had enrolled in a public school for at least one term the prior year.
The passage of the voucher expansion also cements Ducey’s education legacy.
In his final State of the State speech as governor, Ducey spoke proudly of positioning Arizona as “the number one school choice state in the nation.”
During his time in office, the governor also has supported the expansion of micro-schools through a $3.5 million grant to the Black Mother’s Forum and funded several grant programs, including for schools that eschewed the use of COVID-19 mitigation protocols such as masks.
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